Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Train 2: The Journey Begins

I should try not to be so casual about this. For many people, 'The Canadian' is a once in a lifetime experience. Whereas on Amtrak many of the passengers I met were travelling across the USA to see family, to go back to college or on business, VIA Rail Canada's long distance trains attract quite a different crowd. Having realised long ago that they were unable to compete in speed with the airlines or price with the Greyhound, VIA Rail decided to push their trains up-market. Following a period of chopping and changing of routes, 'The Canadian' recently celebrated it's fiftieth anniversary, and is the only remaining train in Canada that can truly claim to be trans-continental. Although the train 'only' operates the 4466km from Vancouver to Toronto (several thousand kilometers short of the Atlantic) many of the tourists who are on board this train have bought onward tickets or are using railpasses to connect with other services to Montréal, Québec and even Halifax. If you want to see Canada from coast to coast, there's arguably no better way than doing it on the train.

So while this is just another train on my itinerary, the atmosphere of excitement in the line up at Pacific Central Station is soon rubbing off on me. And when the platform gates open half an hour before our 17.30 depature, it's easy to see why. With the rear of the train closest to the station building, the first carraige that we see of 'The Canadian' is the beautifully streamlined 'Park' car. This elegant stainless steel dome car finishes the train with a rounded lounge that is exclusively for passengers in 'Silver and Blue' class. Us economy class passengers have a bit further to trudge, however: of the nineteen coaches forming this train today, just two are 'Comfort' class seated coaches - and they're right at the front of the train. By the time we reach them, several excited passengers have already made the inevitable joke about having already walked to Kamloops (the train's first stop).

The carraiges of the train are quite different from Amtrak's fleet. In order to justify the end of VIA's other trans-continental route (the 'Super-Continental') several million dollars was spent refurbishing and upgrading these nineteen-fifties coaches. On the outside, they're classic north American railroad style: shiny hipped stainless steel with a modest band of blue above the windows. Inside, air conditioning has been retro fitted, and the sleeper cars also have showers. In our coach the seats are finished in green, with hard wearing fabric and leather headrests. They're big, squishy and comfy.

Our car fills up with passengers - already I've heard Australian, Kiwi, English and Japanese voices. Surprisingly few Canadians, but there are a few - including a couple behind me travelling on CN passes. Listening to the husband talking, I get the impression he is a railroad man, and knows both the route and how the trains work.

The most audible voice in the car is, without a doubt, that of Meredith, on of the two coach attendants who are looking after the coach passengers. With a faulty PA system, it's over to her to belt out information about the car and safety information ("don't let us catch you walking between the cars without shoes"). A cluster of Japanese tour group members looks bemused, but they soon get the drift. Their tour guide appears flustered, and worries about seating arrangements. She seems to have even less clue about what is going on than her protégés.

Just after 17.30, the train shunts, and we begin to move. I offer a friendly farewell wave out of the window to a group of VIA engineers who have taken a break from their work in the adjacent train shed to watch us depart. They wave back, and enjoy the warmth of the sun as another of their trains pulls away on it's long journey.

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